What’s in a Name?

Marathon MouseDoes your soon-to-be 11 year old have a journal full of songs?

Because ours does. This summer, as we’ve driven some 6,000 miles around the western states, Lucy has been Taylor Swifting her way through her journal jotting down lyrics and song ideas. It’s fun to watch her express herself through writing.

But, then again, she’s a Dixon. She has writing in her blood.

According to the kids, Dad writes the boring stuff, pieces that require lots of dusty books and hours in front of the computer. Worse, Dad writes the stuff that gets…graded.

By contrast, Mom writes the good stuff, picture books full of wonderful characters that actually get printed into book form (here and here).

Put it this way…I’ve never had a child ask me to read them what I wrote before bed, but that feels like it’s a daily occurrence for Amy.

And as Amy has traveled the children’s publishing world, we’ve learned a lot. We’ve learned that the writing process can be anything from brutally difficult to wonderfully cathartic. Or we’ve experienced the reality that getting a manuscript onto the desk of an editor is perilous quest worthy of Indiana Jones. And then we’ve learned that once it makes the desk, you’d better have a thick skin. Because rejection can be a writer’s constant companion.

But one thing we have yet to learn about is any sort of gender bias in the industry.

Until now.

This piece tells the story of a woman’s journey of submitting a manuscript for consideration from a variety of editors. It’s a social experiment, whereby she submitted her work as herself, Catherine, and then as a man, George. Here’s what happened:

Almost all publishers only accept submissions through agents, so they are essential gatekeepers for anyone trying to sell a book in the traditional market rather than self-publishing. There are various ways of attracting an agent’s attention, but sending query letters is the most accessible. The letter describes the novel, the author, and usually includes the first pages of the manuscript itself—the equivalent of what a reader might see picking up a book in a store. Agents can let silence speak for itself, write back with a rejection, or ask to see the novel.

I sent the six queries I had planned to send that day. Within 24 hours George had five responses—three manuscript requests and two warm rejections praising his exciting project. For contrast, under my own name, the same letter and pages sent 50 times had netted me a total of two manuscript requests. The responses gave me a little frisson of delight at being called “Mr.” and then I got mad. Three manuscript requests on a Saturday, not even during business hours! The judgments about my work that had seemed as solid as the walls of my house had turned out to be meaningless. My novel wasn’t the problem, it was me—Catherine.

I wanted to know more of how the Georges of the world live, so I sent more. Total data: George sent out 50 queries, and had his manuscript requested 17 times. He is eight and a half times better than me at writing the same book. Fully a third of the agents who saw his query wanted to see more, where my numbers never did shift from one in 25.

Crazy, right? Who knew Tertullian was a book editor?

Now, as the writer speculates in her piece, it’s possible that other things are going on here. For instance, an editor could well be wooed by the prospect of representing a novel featuring a female character written by a man.

But it’s also possible that we’re talking about good, old-fashioned male privilege as well. She writes,  “maybe the agents were subconsciously friendlier to George. Unconscious bias is difficult to overcome.”

Indeed it is.

Which leaves me to hope that one day, sometime down the road, a book of songs, or poems, or short stories, or–what the heck–academic research, will be published not by Luke…

But by Lucy.

2 responses to “What’s in a Name?”

  1. Leah says :

    This is so frustrating. It reminds me of studies conducted where if an applicant for a job had an African-American sounding name on a resume it was more likely to get skipped over verses a Caucasian sounding name. Sexism and racism are alive and well in all spheres. I’m so glad that the Lord can renew and redeem our minds and attitudes.

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